Producer Todd Fellman and his accidental international career

Producer Todd Fellman makes footloose productions work, tried hard with China and is now making The Portable Door in Queensland, all because he played the right game of tennis.
Filmmakers face camera

‘I grew up with a real passion for travelling, and I’ve always seen myself as a citizen of the world. I’ve been open-minded and curious about different cultures and different perspectives.’

In the ecosystem of production in Australia, California raised Todd Fellman has always made himself useful patrolling that space between Australia, the US and China, making deals and pushing productions through co-production treaties. 

Right now his heart is in Queensland at Pinnacle Studios on the Gold Coast, where his company Story Bridge Films is shooting The Portable Door with The Jim Henson Company, supported by Queensland government money. It is described as a science fiction comedy, where ‘the Devil’s Advocate meets Harry Potter.’

Through a Portable Door

The UK arm of the Jim Henson Company acquired the rights to the books by Tom Holt a decade ago, and looked for partners to develop it. But, Fellman told Screenhub, they traditionally worked with studios and were looking for new relationships so they could increase their independence. 

Henson executive Blanca Lista saw Mental, which Fellman produced with Jocelyn Moorhouse and Janet and Jerry Zucker. She met Fellman at an Ausfilm event, and started to talk. She already had Australian writer Leon Ford attached which led to a famous coffee conversation with the three of them eight years ago which laid the foundations for a co-production which is only now bearing fruit. 

Read: First look at Portable Door

Jeffrey Walker is directing, while the key actors are Sam Neill, Christoph Waltz, Patrick Gibson, Sophie Wilde and Damon Herriman. Fellman and Lista are especially proud of the fact that Ford remained on the project as the sole writer during the whole journey.

How did Todd Fellman get to this point?

Fellman was born in the US, and you have to imagine an incredibly Austra-Californian moment to start him on his long trajectory to Australian production. His father worked in distribution for Warners, which is historically close to the US arm of Village Roadshow. 

‘The Roadshow guys and I used to teach tennis in the summers to Richard Fox, who was the head of International at Warners,’ Fellman explained. ‘He told me he went to Australia early in his career which ultimately helped him to put the partnership together between Roadshow and Warners.

‘And that connection kind of led to the offer to come on down for a few months in an internship that turned into a year that turned into meeting my wife.’

This was early in the burgeoning relationship between Australian production and Hollywood, and Fellman became The American on the Gold Coast. ‘I was living the dream, surfing and diving and working at the studio on the Gold Coast. A string of American projects came up and I thought it was a pretty unique opportunity and built a lot of relationships, just working from project to project.’ 

He became known as a facilitator of US shows and developed a multi-stranded professional life. ‘I worked myself up as an assistant director and set up a little company renting walkie-talkies which kept me fed between jobs. I had a passion for architecture and renovating houses, so I also got into that to keep me sane. Each time you move from job to job you gain a little bit more responsibility, and ultimately I took the big leap into producing.’ 

A brush with the bottom

He came across US outfit Franchise Pictures which made films for Warners from from 1999 to 2005. ‘They were keen to explore Australia as a location to set up some films and I worked with them for a little while looking to set a number of their projects up here and that kind of gave me a bit more insight into financing and how films actually came together.’ He also gave himself a crash course into the Australian system and the role of local subsidiaries as he gathered the insights that would make him a producer.

Once Franchise Pictures went beyond the set-up phase where Australia was briefly on the agenda, it made a few good films and some stinkers. The most famous is Battlefield Earth, starring Scientologist John Travolta, based on a novel by L. Ron Hubbard. According to the Washington Post, ‘A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth‘. The Guardian review is a wonder. The FBI became involved, Franchise was sued for inflating budgets by over US$75 million and it went bankrupt in 2007.

Far from these debacles, in 2005 Todd Fellman had his first full producer credit on Restraint, a $5 million thriller with Film Finance Corporation money, which had an inglorious history in the cinemas. In 2009 he was a coproducer with Chris Brown on Daybreakers, the very indy vampire film from the Spierig Brothers, supported by Lionsgate. It seems to have cost US$20 million and made over US$50 million – not a huge cinema return given the deals and the cost of advertising, but pretty respectable in the middle of a tornado of vampire flicks. 

The Chinese investors

Since then Fellman has made a dozen unpretentious and entertaining films, from which Bait 3D shines as a production story with some twists and turns. It was driven partly by the passion that both Fellman and Arclight producer Gary Hamilton felt for the expanding Chinese market.

It is a wonderfully ridiculous idea. A Queensland supermarket is hit by a tsunami and fills with water. Cue splashing, drowning and destruction. Then the customers discover an enormous shark cruising the aisles for its lunch.

It was set up as an Australian-Singapore co-production sweetened with a Singaporean character, played by a mainland Chinese actor which annoyed the Singaporean public. Then the producers tried to release it in China, and entered a world of pain. The industry joke is that the Chinese objected to the fact that the token Asian actor was eaten, but the story is a bit more complicated than that. 

“There was huge interest from China in that film from the start, but it never felt feasible to do what was required to create a tri-party co-production’, Fellman said. But Chinese investors did put in $5m of the $25m budget, which meant the film went to the Chinese censors, who approved it. 

However, the Chinese investors had some rights over the content, and decided to maximise its appeal to mainland Chinese audiences. Backstory scenes were shot, and the helicopter rescuers were rebadged to China. The producers shot twenty days of additional footage, and created a very different cut. But the investors, and maybe the censors too, were not too happy with the additions so it actually went out with a mere 3 minutes of extra scenes. 

The film made $1.15 million in Australia and $38.7 million in China, and nothing in the US. 

The peak in 2018

In 2018, Fellman was the non-Chinese producer on Legend of Sun and Moon, at the time the largest Chinese-Australian coproduction, at Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast. The shoot ran for 17 weeks which must have kept Fellman away from the building trade while he repaired his bank account. It was directed by Eva Jin, the first female director to do really well commercially in China, who developed the film independently over seven years. It was renamed Saga of Light and has yet to be released.

In the same year he was an executive producer on Guardians of the Tomb, driven by Gary Hamilton, which was directed by Bait survivor Kimble Rendall, who also wrote with Jonathan Scanlon and Paul Staheli from an idea by Hamilton. This was very much an Australian project with a Chinese cast, made for an international market. 

Read: Gary Hamilton on his vision of China

Fellman was also the local producer on At Last, for which the writer and director were both Chinese but it too was made on the Gold Coast

In 2019, University of Wollongong researcher Kai Ruo Soh reflected in her PhD thesis on the surge of co-productions between China and Australia which started from 2016. With Bait not a co-pro, her list topped out with Guardians of the Tomb with US$7.1 million at the box office, followed by Dragon Pearl at $6.7 million and 33 Postcards with $350,000. At Last was among the shows rumoured to have been scrapped. 

She used Bait 3D as a case study, and collected detailed audience opinion about the film. That $38.7 million in box office is a tiny part of the Chinese audience, so the film could have done much, much better. The picture arrived just as 3D peaked, but the audience was indifferent or immune to the effect on Bait, while some social media commentary claimed it was shoddy and unconvincing.

But the biggest problem was the marketing. The extra scenes which made the film more Chinese were clumsy and irrelevant, which is why they were cut back. But they did feature Chinese actor Ashton Chen, whose name and image featured prominently in the poster. He attended the Beijing press conference, further building the expectation that this was a Chen film. In fact, he is only there for less than ten seconds. (!!!!) The audience was pissed off, the media featured interviews with him in which expressed his disappointment and revealed there were extra scenes which had disappeared. A website posted links to the deleted scenes. It was surely a public relations nightmare. 

Patience is a virtue

Fellman tales a long view on these problems. After all, he is not the lead producer or production company and can’t be held responsible for bad strategic errors. He pointed out that the arrival of Chinese projects was a lifesaver for the Australian sector, fuelled by ready investment money, curiosity and the value of fish-out-of-water films in exotic locations. The Americans had disappeared as the dollar had gone through the roof and cheap European facilities were competing vigorously.

He sees the strategic value of double tracking, in which the US and Chinese attention can balance each other to create a more resilient Australian sector. He takes his chosen role as inter-cultural mediator seriously. I asked him about the insights and skills needed to manage the relationship. 

‘I approached a lot of those productions as learning curves,’ he said, ‘part of understanding each other.  Whether this is personal or political, understanding each other’s culture is really just to be able to get to know each other and spend time with each other and I think ultimately co productions achieve that through the storytelling.’

Beyond hosting Chinese crews here, he was also able to work with them in their own studios, so he could make sense of different customs and authority structures. Social interactions were very useful, pushed along by the Chinese ritual of formal dinners to mark ceremonial moments.

‘The first thing to tackle in that whole process is communication, to find a team of translators and pepper them through the crew and the whole workflow in places and ways to continue as seamlessly as you can. We found Chinese students working here and studying Western style filmmaking and they were fantastic. They had really great attitudes and an amazing work ethic, and were super effective at helping facilitate that whole process.’

Dark times

We know the big issues. COVID 19 erupted, the Chinese Communist Party has been taking control of the screen sector and we are fighting a trade war. But there is a more subtle issue too. The productions that Todd Fellman has been managing are non-studio independent films, which are investment opportunities for loose capital rolling around in mainland China. 

We can’t expect that to come back. Just three days ago, The Economist told its readers, ‘In the clearest sign yet that the government wants to revise its state-capitalist model into something with less global capitalism and more Chinese state, online-education companies were told they can no longer make a profit or use offshore vehicles that enable their shares to be traded abroad.’

The value of Chinese companies on American stock markets is estimated at $2 trillion, which includes those online education companies. Three of the biggest immediately lost 2/3 of their value, which adds up to $18 billion in shareholder value. Who is going to invest in companies where their government can simply turn them into not-for-profits with a regulation?

It is hard to imagine Australians doing much new business with Chinese media outfits over the next few years. Fortunately the sector is currently humming with US productions. For a while. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.